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In Defense of Speciesism Essay

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Updated: Jun 10th, 2021


Nowadays, more and more people around the world begin regarding animals as having rights just as humans do. Various organizations fight against practices that hurt different species, including hunting, medicine and cosmetics testing, and others. Moreover, vegan culture is growing more popular, especially in Western countries. Nevertheless, such industries as meat production are not losing their positions, as many people continue to view animals as resources.

Carl Cohen is among those individuals, who share similar ideas. He offers a sound perspective that animals do not have rights and thus can be treated as required by people. The idea of Cohen is better than that of his opponents because its grounding is not controversial. His viewpoint is based on the accurate understanding of rights and morals, which can be found in the works of philosophers from different epochs. This paper aims to give an overview of his theory, as well as to discuss opposing ideas that exist regarding such position.

Speciesism of Cohen

Speciesism is viewed by many as something equal to racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination. Nevertheless, Carl Cohen calls himself a speciesist and claims that it is essential for making accurate judgments (487). He explains it by the fact that it is not possible to pretend that animals and humans are equal. There are two alternatives in such a case, both of which are false and unrealistic. It would either mean that animals have identical rights as humans do, or neither of these two groups have any. This grounding seems logical, as it proves that equality of such kind cannot exist.

There is also a perception of living creatures suffering pain and distress from their use. Consequently, animals have rights to not be treated in a way that would cause such conditions. Cohen argues against this position, saying that if speciesism is wrong and everyone must be treated equally, then the suffering of people caused by the absence of tested medicine must not be overlooked (488). Thus, it is practically impossible to support the well-being of one group without hurting the other one.

Why Animals Have no Rights

Cohen believes that, unlike humans, animals cannot have any rights. His idea is based on the perception that it is essential to view them as a potential claim (Cohen 486). It can be exercised against an individual or a group, meaning it has a target. There are various sources of rights like legal documents or moral laws. Finally, there are numerous contents depending on the situation, describing what should or should not be done.

It is important that the bearer of rights understands the consequences of his or her actions. Cohen says that, for instance, a criminal case always includes a guilty deed and mind (486). It is unthinkable to bring an animal to a court for trial because it cannot have the latter. Thus, it is logical that other species than humans cannot have rights as they do not have the same type of thinking, nor can they defend their actions.

Rights and Moral Standing

There is a connection between rights and moral capacities, as they depend on each other. In his work, Cohen lists several types of description for the latter as it was given by philosophers of different times (486). One of the main ideas is that humans are morally autonomous, as they possess the corresponding free will and an ability to make choices based on it. In other words, people formulate laws for themselves and for others to control their life. Activities and behavior of animals, on the contrary, do not decide between what is beneficial for them and what is just.

Consequently, people have moral standing, which is not the same as having rights. Humans should be considered while making a decision associated with ethics. It is possible since people belong to the moral community, which is the meaning of the former concept. Rights, on the other hand, are the result of this situation, as claims of such character may exist only in this type of autonomy.

Supporting Animal Use

Another idea of people defending the prohibition of using animals in different industries is that they experience pain and suffering, which is unjust towards them. Cohen replies that activities such as biomedical research must be continued (487). Of course, animals should not be subject to cruel treatment for unnecessary purposes like amusement. However, there should be a difference between the suffering experienced by people and other species. Cohen explains it by the moral standing, which is the unique feature of the former (487). People and animals must not be regarded as equals in this case as they have different rights status.

Biomedical research is not the only industry critiqued by the protectors of human rights. Cohen claims that those people must be consistent and adopt the vegan lifestyle in all aspects, including food, clothing, and others (488). This is the consequence of the perspective that insists animals are equal to humans. However, this approach is practically impossible to adopt, as, for instance, few people will refuse to take a life-saving medicine that was tested on animals when there is such a need (Cohen 488). Thus, Cohen’s theory is more realistic than others regarding this ethical issue.


As society grows more tolerant towards different groups of people, the question arises of why the same attitude cannot be taken towards animals. There are many individuals who choose to minimize their impact on other species according to such views. As a result, various industry players that deal with animals transform their operations to meet the new demands of the public. For example, it becomes popular among egg and poultry producers to create a marketing image of chickens being raised on free range. The expanding movement for animal rights covers more economic sectors each year.

Regan’s Defense of Animal Rights

The example of industries going forth to minimize chicken suffering is a part of the subject criticized by some researchers. Tom Regan, for example, claims that it is necessary to abolish the animal use in such spheres as biomedical research and agriculture instead of improving the operations (489). It is not enough to change a process partially, as the final stage still results in pain and suffering, and the purpose in unethical.

The background of Regan’s idea is that animals cannot be treated as resources. Instead, he claims that they possess rights based on a simple fact that they are subjects of a life (491). Animals have an inherited value, and they have feelings, emotions, thinking patterns, and other cognitive features. Besides, there should not be a distinction of whether humans are to be valued more than other species.

Regan’s theory is based on two interwinding ideas of ethical character. Firstly, he describes the concept of the rights view, which implies that no good result should be achieved by evil means (490). For instance, human society does not tolerate murder even if it is done to benefit a group. Similarly, this approach must apply to other species, preventing their use and suffering from practices like biomedical research. However, real world does not allow anyone existing in a system that would benefit everyone, and it would be sensible for people to make choices based on the common good instead of trying to ensure the rights of both animals and humankind.

Another justification of Regan’s viewpoint is based on the concept of the equal inherited value. He mentions that every subject of life independent of its qualities is the same in this characteristic (491). Cohen opposes this idea by saying that people are more advanced than animals due to having moral standing (487). However, Regan claims that this feature cannot be used as a measurement as not all human beings are the same psychologically (491). For instance, there are individuals with mental illnesses that prevent them from being morally autonomous and making grounded decisions. Nevertheless, society perceives them as those having the same inherited value as other people.

Yet, there is a significant logical fallacy within the described approach. Regan draws parallels between such quality as inherited value and rights. He seems to forget that some groups of people may lack some of them due to conditions like mental illnesses. Thus, while everyone has the same inherited value, the rights of individuals vary depending on many factors. There is no reason why animals should not be subject to a similar approach.


Cohen presents a well-developed theory explaining why animals have no rights. His position is grounded by the idea that species other than humans are not members of the moral community. Thus, their rights can be neglected to a degree for the benefit of people in such practices as biomedical research. Cohen’s viewpoint is criticized by others, who do not accept speciesism. For instance, Regan puts the concept of inherited value as a prerequisite for having rights. However, this theory is controversial as it does not consider various factors, which contribute to inequality between people, and animals should not be an exception.

Works Cited

Cohen, Carl. “In Defense of Speciesism.” Disputed Moral Issues: A Reader, edited by Mark Timmons, Oxford University Press, 2016, pp. 485-488.

Regan, Tom. “The Case for Animal Rights.” Disputed Moral Issues: A Reader, edited by Mark Timmons, Oxford University Press, 2016, pp. 489-492.

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